Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How does a book have meaning?

How does a book have meaning? I don't mean how does a particular book have meaning, nor how does a book have meaning to a particular person, but rather, how does the process of stringing letters together into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, and chapters into a book render meaning to a generic reader?

No, I wasn't taking an introduction to linguistics (I have to read up on Chomsky...), nor studying semantics. Instead, I was trying to find a digital copy of  a book on the Internet, which I found, but, because of copyright protection, I was only able to search the digital copy. The funny thing was that when I searched for a word in this digital copy, I was only told that the word occurred "x" times in the book, and then I was given a list of pages on which the word showed up.

Hmmm.... Not too much to go on, but after my first inclination to throw the computer out the window, I asked myself, "What CAN I tell about this book by searching for only words?" I put a few more words into the search box, looked at the number of times the word appeared...

Several thoughts came to mind: (1) the number of times the word appears gives very limited indication as to the content of the book, but it might be useful, if I asked for the right words, (2) Where the words appeared in the book was informative (for example, one search yielded four occurrences, all within the first 12 pages of the text, which had 60 pages), (3) I could search for short phrases, not just words (another interesting question: what is the average length of a phrase that uniquely identifies a book? I'll leave that one for the definition of plagiarism!).

All told, I got to thinking about the meaning of words, the meaning I give to words, and how I give those words meaning. I know this is a topic of years of study in linguistics, and I am a poorly educated scholar in the theory of linguistics, but that doesn't keep me from imagining an interesting game show...

Helloooo, everybody! Welcome to "Name that book!" in which our friendly computer program, "GiZAh!", has chosen a book, and you, our esteemed reader, is given the opportunity to ask GiZAh questions, until you guess the book (or give up)...

Is this the inverse to the "book search" question, where someone is looking for a book? Here, instead of looking for the book by asking questions, I am looking for the questions, given the book.

And the game theorist in me immediately asks, "What is the optimal sequence of questions to guess the book such that the number of guesses is minimized?" or, if played with a panel of readers, "What is the optimal strategy given the costs and rewards?"

Oh, the fun I can come up with from the frustrations of having only limited search capabilities to digital content on the Internet! I think I'll just go out and buy the damn book! But then, that's what copyrights are all about, aren't they?
A penny for my thoughts?
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